Growing Up White And Dealing With an Identity Crises*

I grew up in a quintessential, middle class New Jersey suburb.  My parents, who went to college in America, were not typical Japanese expatriates.  They cared little for socializing with Japanese people or Japanese pop culture and thus, I grew up with very little Japanese around me.  Except for insisting that I attend Japanese school a dozen or so hours a week, my childhood environment was distinctly American, including the yellings which increasingly occurred in English.

And this means that I grew up thinking I was white.

Looking back at my teenage years, I have no doubt child psychologists are right that teenage years are transformative  years in a person’s growth.  I suspect the biggest reason is because we become self-aware during that period.  The nonchalant child that I was (and which I remain), I entered my self-awareness phase rather late in high school, but when it came, it led to a serious identity crises.

It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to diagnose the source of the problem.  There is an obvious problem with the way I viewed myself during my early childhood: I may have talked like a white person, thought like a white person and even acted like a white person, but I was, most obviously, not white.

Self-awareness in teenage years leads to an identity crises because you suddenly lose the sense of who you are without a foundation to hold onto.  Starting late in high school and into college, I was asking the most basic questions like, “Am I Japanese or am I American?” and “If I’m Japanese, how should I be behaving?” with very little answers.  I jokingly blogged about my name before, but the truth is that the various names I used in college is the most obvious manifestation of my struggle to define myself.

I think every teenager goes through an identity issue in one way or another but I suspect this is a greater problem for those who grow up in a multi-cultural environment.  Just as it’s not possible to become truly bilingual, it’s really not possible to become bi-cultural.  A child can’t really be immersed in two environments, even by trying to split it between home and school, and cultures often clash.  One culture will naturally dominate the other, but it’s not entirely surprising that the recessive culture can’t forever be repressed.

Personally, I don’t think my family situation really helped, although I’m not into seeking pity or playing the victim.  My parents are loving, caring people, but they never fully appreciated the challenges I faced in my identity crises.  From their perspective, there was very little to figure out about Japan.  They grew up there, received their primary education there and started a family there.  They knew what life in Japan as a Japanese was like and they were quite happy to leave it behind for the comforts of the United States, first to attend college, then to make a living.

Thus, my parents made very clear at an early age where they expected my immediate future after high school to be.   They, though, had the benefit of discovering the preference of America for themselves.  I never knew what I preferred because I never had a point of comparison.  My parents were indifferent to this plight and, I hate to say, rather hostile to my pursuit of anything Japanese.  And for this lack of compassion, I don’t think I’ve ever quite stopped resenting them.  I now see where they were coming from, but the point isn’t that they are or may be right.  It’s that I should have been allowed to find out for myself, just like they did.

Of course, I resolved my identity issues in the comforts of college in due course and anyone who knows me today may very well argue that the resolution led to far too haughty view of myself.  It wasn’t easy getting here, though.  Besides finally reaching a happy equilibrium with my name (Full name:  Joe M. Sasanuma, no prefix, no suffix; Initials:  JMMS), I’m now perfectly content that my view of the world is distinctly American and distinctly white, middle class, the latter of which accentuated by attending a predominantly white, middle class college.  I view myself as not fully Americanized–I don’t view myself as a second generation American–yet I have enough awareness to realize that  who I am, how I act and what I think will never pass in Japan, at least not as a native Japanese.

The answer of “Who am I?”, a question far too deep for me to even contemplated in high school, does not have an easy answer, but the upshot of going through an identity crises is that I know there is an answer and it is complex.

*  A reader kindly pointed out that, rather fittingly, this word should have been “crisis.”  This has happened before on another fitting occasion.  I suspect people notice these things most in posts like these because I flag for their attention my English that’s somewhat wanting.  I bet you if you pay attention to each of my posts, you will find other English mistakes that no American would make.


1 Response to “Growing Up White And Dealing With an Identity Crises*”

  1. 1 A Taste of the South « The World According to Joe Trackback on September 7, 2011 at 11:07 am

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